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Account Planning as a Tool for Better Marketing

Although account planning has been the buzzword in American advertising for decades, it is well known that the discipline originated in England. But few realize how far back we must look to find the originators of this now-critical facet of modern advertising and marketing.

It is generally believed that account planning originated with a gentleman named Stanley Pollitt, who with his partners formed the fabled British agency BMP. He experimented by coupling research with target audience interviews to direct and improve creative work as early as 1965. The term “account planning” was actually coined circa 1968 at J. Walter Thompson’s London office by one Stephen King (no relation to the horror fiction author), and Pollitt freely admitted to borrowing the term.

Account planning, according to Pollitt and his disciples, is the process of bringing the consumer into the development of advertising. It encompasses research data, client concerns and the intuition of the creative department, and also the views, perceptions and desires of the target audience—making advertising more distinctive and effective. At its best, account planning guides the creation of award-winning advertising—in terms of both creativity and effectiveness. American advertising has embraced the technique with some fairly wonderful results. Witness the rise of agencies like Chiat/Day, Fallon McElligott and Goodby Silverstein & Partners who imported both the concept and British account planners to train their U.S. employees.

Jay Chiat claimed that account planning is “the best new business tool ever invented.” But while it may help somewhat in developing creative and on-target new business proposals, what it does even better is build an agency’s reputation for smart, effective, and distinctive creative work. Jon Steel, author of Truth, Lies and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning, and long-time account planner for BMP and later, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, calls account planning the best “old business” tool yet devised, because of the added respect accorded to agencies so dedicated to getting it right for the client.

That is what account planning is truly all about. If you approach account planning as simply another tool for keeping clients happy, or improving agency profits, or adding to your portfolio and awards shelf, you may have missed the point of account planning altogether. Account planning helps you get it right—and by “it,” we refer to the message, the focus of the advertising effort, the appeal to the chosen audience. For true adherents of the discipline, account planning elevates advertising from a profession to a calling, one aimed at drawing the consumer into a relationship with the product, service or brand.

Now that we have delivered the sermon, let’s move on to today's text...

Account Planning for Market Focus

Typically, account planning calls for answers to a series of important questions about the brand, product or service.

What are you advertising? Knowing and understanding the value of the product—its U.S.P. or claim of distinction—is critical to the planning process. Don’t forget the positioning of the product and the value of the brand.

Who is the audience? In today’s complex marketplace, you need to know your “niche,” those people who will be most attracted to your product and react most strongly to the selling message. What do you know about your audience? Primary research plays a strong role in developing a profile of your audience, supported by secondary demographic and psychographic data. 

What action do you want them to take? You must decide whether you want them to visit a website, buy a product, call for information, or recommend you to a friend. The desired response will shape the ad message. 

What must you say to generate that desired action? Given what you now know about the audience and product, and what response you are looking for, what appeal can you make to get the consumer to take that important step? 

What channels will you use? Knowing how and where to reach today’s consumers is a critical part of planning. People now use multiple devices to access a growing array of media channels, and their attention is as fragmented as the media they consume. Which audiences use which channels? What does each channel do best? How can the message be served to take engage channel behaviors? 

How will you verify the message worked? Decide in advance how you can and will measure the results of the appeal. Exit polls, sales figures, telephone follow-up interviews, etc., all provide feedback on results and information applicable to future efforts. 

What ideas might work? Account planning merges the formerly incompatible functions of research and creative. The account planner uses analytical skills as well as imagination to guide the creative department toward ideas that incorporate research, client input, background knowledge and consumer wants/attitudes. The account planner then channels the creative effort into more focused, concise thinking—disciplining the mental creative process by eliminating off-base ideas.

Some agencies go so far as to get focus group assessments of creative concepts. This is where many agency creatives argue that account planning stifles the creative spirit. Let us say simply that professionally conducted focus groups (meaning interview specialists who know how to correctly write and ask questions presenting ideas to interviewees who fit the profile of the target consumer) can be invaluable in improving a marketing message, providing greater impact and effectiveness. We will also say that even focus groups can get it wrong, if they are given too much weight when balanced against all the research, knowledge and yes, even intuition of the account planner.  

What is the tone of your voice? Again, knowing the audience and product helps the account planner find the correct approach or pitch. To give an extreme example, a product aimed at older consumers will scarcely benefit from a sales message featuring young actors screaming about how cool the product makes them feel. Not because the older consumers won't “get it,” but because the older audience’s perception of “cool” is very likely based on entirely different life experiences. 

WHAT IS YOUR KEY MESSAGE? To harken back to the mighty Bill Bernbach, “Make it simple. Make it memorable.” The whole theory of account planning is focus. And that includes the very words you use for your headline or sales message.

Account planning is a tool that, correctly used, can boost results, improve the bottom lines of agency and client, and most important, build long-term client relationships. Smaller agencies that integrate account planning into their account service and creative programs will see these benefits, providing they do the job correctly and recognize that account planning itself needs to be sold.

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